Movie Review: Book Club

Four iconic actresses—Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen—come together in this breezy movie about relationships, aging, and sexuality.

Each actress plays a role closely tied to her own persona: High-strung Diane (Diane Keaton) is dealing with recent widowhood, Vivian (Jane Fonda) enjoys her short flings and independence, Sharon (Candice Bergen) plays a cynical, long-divorced federal judge, and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is experiencing a slump in her marriage.

After starting to read Fifty Shades of Grey, their book club selection, the women’s lives are turned upside down.

While traveling to visit her two condescending daughters, Diane stumbles over a dashing stranger (Andy Garcia), almost knocks him out as she tries to retrieve anti-anxiety pills, and when a loud noise frightens her, she grabs his crotch to steady herself. Sparks fly and soon the twosome is inseparable.

Carol’s attempts to revive her sex life with her husband (Craig T. Nelson) lead to several cringe-worthy conversations and an embarrassing encounter with a female constable.

Bold and confident Vivian succumbs to the advances of a younger lover (Don Johnson) from her past.

Sharon, played with aplomb by Candice Bergen, stole the show with her witticisms, no-nonsense judgments, struggles with Spanx, and online dating adventures. I could easily have watched an entire 104 minutes of this particular subplot.

Definitely light fare but worth seeing and noting the underlying message: If you’re feeling stuck or stagnant, take responsibility and shake up your life.


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Movie Review: I Can Only Imagine

I’ve always been fascinated with the back story behind creative endeavors—that initial spark, struggles on the journey, and the ultimate success. All three exist, along with stellar acting performances, in this riveting film about the inspiring story behind the most popular Christian music song in history.

The storyline follows the trajectory of MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard from his pre-teen years (played by Brody Rose) through high school and beyond (brilliantly played by Broadway performer J. Michael Finlay).

Growing up in Greenville, Texas, Bart had a tight bond with his gentle mother but steered clear of his angry, abusive father (expertly played by Dennis Quaid). Upon returning home from a week at church camp, Bart discovers that his mother has abandoned him, leaving him alone to suffer the emotional and physical abuse.

Bart attempts to connect with his father—a former high school athlete—through football. Unfortunately, a leg injury derails Bart’s plans. His girlfriend Shannon (Madelaine Carroll) persuades him to join the Glee Club. Everyone—including Bart—is surprised by his singing talent.

Determined to be a success in the music industry, Bart leaves town upon graduation, abandoning his father and girlfriend. He joins a band that needs a singer and tours with them throughout Oklahoma and nearby states. They attract the attention of music producer Brickell (well-played by Trace Adkins). While Brickell isn’t impressed by their cover songs, he does show interest in Bart’s more heartfelt music.

The band is popular and well-received by audiences, but music executives are not ready to take them to the next level. The criticism stings: “You’re not good enough…Go home.”

Distraught, Bart wants to quit, but Brickwell persuades him to address the demons that are holding him back. His advice is spot-on: “Let that pain become your inspiration.”

Planning to confront his father, Bart returns to Greenville. But his anger is short-lived. The paternal monster has evolved into the father that Bart always hoped he would have. Inspired by this spiritual transformation, Bart pens the lyrics to “I Can Only Imagine.”

What follows are tear-jerking moments and the delivery of the song. During the credits, the real-life Bart Millard delivers his rendition of the chart-topping song that has brought hope into the lives of millions.

Definitely a movie for the Easter season. Don’t miss it!


Movie Review: The Shape of Water

Master storyteller and director Guillermo del Toro has created an adult fairy tale set against the backdrop of the Cold War era. In a high-security government laboratory, the lives of two janitors, brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins (Elisa) and Octavia Spencer (Zelda), intersect with the lives of a nasty military officer (Michael Shannon) and a sympathetic researcher (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Point of intersection: a secret classified experiment that has captured the interest of the Americans and the Russians.

An amphibious creature—often referred to as the “asset”—is shackled and tested while its future is being debated. The scientists consider the asset to be a biological miracle that could be used to help future astronauts. The military is considering the asset as a potential weapon against the Russians while the Russians are plotting their own takeover of the asset.

Elisa tries to keep her head down as she cleans around the asset’s tank, but she can’t resist taking a peek. There is an instant connection as soon as her eyes connect with the blue orbs of the amphibian (Doug Jones). An inter-species romance develops as Elisa secretly shares boiled eggs and music during her lunch breaks. The two outsiders—a mute woman and an amphibian—form a silent bond.

Emboldened by her love, Elisa decides to liberate the creature. What follows is an unlikely but fascinating tale of escape and the repercussions for all involved.

So much to like here—Sally Hawkins’ ability to express herself without uttering a word, strong performances by all supporting actors, breathtaking underwater visions, expert narration by Richard Jenkins (who also stars as Elisa’s eccentric neighbor), unexpected plot twists, and Guillermo del Toro’s extraordinary vision of a magical world brought to life.

The most-nominated film at this year’s Oscars, The Shape of Water won in four categories: Production Design, Original Score, Director, and Best Picture.


Movie Review: Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman is a shoo-in for an Oscar win. Having already received Golden Globes, British Academy Film, and Screen Actors Guild awards, he is poised to add another statue to his collection.

At first, Oldman didn’t want to play Sir Winston Churchill. He felt that too many great British authors, among them Albert Finney and Brian Fox, had already conquered this role. He also wondered about the heavy makeup and other alterations that would be required.

He needn’t have worried.

His physical transformation—made possible by prosthetics and the expertise of make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji—is extraordinary. Add in a heavy, deliberate gait and indistinguishable mumble, and the transformation is complete: Gary Oldman disappears into Sir Winston Churchill.

In a recent interview, Oldman commented: “Churchill was funny as hell…He was leaping around at 65 like he was 20. And he had this cherubic grin on his face, and very often a twinkle in the eye, which you could see even in the old black-and-white.” I was happy to see the lighter side of the curmudgeon emerge in this film.

While Oldman dominates the screen, he is surrounded by an exceptional cast. I was impressed by Kristin Scott-Thomas’s depiction of Clemmie Churchill. Practically minded and unimpressed by her blustering husband, Clemmie takes charge of the household and doesn’t hesitate to reprimand Churchill when he behaves badly. But she also encourages him during challenging times. My favorite line: “You are strong because you are imperfect.”

Ben Mendelsohn delivers an understated but effective portrayal of King George VI. He speaks slowly but doesn’t overplay the King’s speech impediment. His encounters with Churchill provide much of the humor in the film. I couldn’t help chuckling during their first encounter. The king’s awkwardness is evident as he struggles to acknowledge Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister. When the King suggests a weekly meeting at four o’clock in the afternoon, the following conversation takes place:

Churchill: I nap at four.
King: Is that permissible?
Churchill: No, but necessary.

At one of their lunches..

King: How do you manage all this drinking during the day?
Churchill: Practice.

I highly recommend this dramatic and inspiring story of a pivotal period in world history: four weeks in 1940 during which Sir Winston Churchill rallied the British nation and orchestrated the rescue of over 300,000 Allied soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk.


Movie Review: I, Tonya

I can vividly recall the drama surrounding Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan during the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. Along with millions of television viewers worldwide, I watched as this sensational scandal unfolded on the ice. I cheered when Nancy earned the silver medal. As for Tonya…I remember her tearful plea for a re-skate after a shoelace snapped and an eighth-place finish.

Back then, it appeared clear-cut: Nancy was the American princess who deserved a gold medal, and Tonya was the rough redneck who didn’t deserve to skate in the Olympics.

But the truth is much more complicated. And there is more than one victim in this story.

In I, Tonya, Australian Director Craig Gillespie explores different truths, told from the perspectives of Tonya (Margot Robbie), her mother LaVona Golden (Allison Jannie), her abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her bodyguard Eckerd (Paul Walter Hauser).

Alternative truths emerge with back-to-back scenes contradicting each other.

Who is telling the truth?

Who is embellishing?

Who is lying?

In spite of all the ambiguity, I found the movie even more addictive than the actual events.

Horrified, I watched as LaVona physically and emotionally abused Tonya throughout her childhood and adolescence. To survive, Tonya develops an abrasiveness that sets her apart from the budding princesses on the rink. Not even a kind and supportive coach could crack through that hardened shell.

Tonya’s skating ability is extraordinary, and she easily wins in local competitions. But when she moves to larger venues, she loses to less talented skaters. She complains to the judges, only to be told: “We also judge on presentation.”

Her relationship with Jeff Gillooly is fraught with tension and escalating abuse. I wondered why she kept going back to him. The truth is revealed in a telling scene with LaVona. Told that she needs to cobble together a “wholesome American family” to be considered a contender for the Olympics, Tonya approaches her mother for help. LaVona proceeds to berate Tonya, leaving the younger woman no other choice but to reconcile with Jeff.

In the lead-up to the “incident” where Nancy Kerrigan is knee-capped, the truth becomes more obscure. It is clear that Tonya considered Nancy her main competition, but the two women were also friends, rooming together during competitive events. While Tonya focuses on her skating, Jeff and Eckerd set in motion the “letter threats” plot that morphs into a poorly executed physical assault on Nancy.

The tragic ending of this fall from grace is inevitable. Still, it is hard to watch as Tonya Harding receives a harsh punishment that derails all her skating dreams.

Allison Jannie has already received Golden Globes, British Academy Film, and Screen Actors Guild awards for her stellar performance as the abusive stage mother. I wouldn’t be surprised if she won an Oscar. Margot Robbie also deserves an Oscar nod in the Best-Actress category.

A must-see film!


Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Disturbing. Thought-provoking. Unsettling.

But, most of all, riveting.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen as I watched Frances McDormand embrace the role of Mildred Hayes. It is not surprising that she has already captured several Best Actress awards and is a strong contender for an Oscar.

Angry and frustrated after seven months of waiting for the local police to apprehend the man who raped, murdered, and burned her daughter, Mildred rents a trio of billboards with the following provocative messages:

RAPED WHILE DYING
STILL NO ARRESTS?
HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

But calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his incompetence does not endear Mildred to the residents of Ebbing, a fictitious, small town in Missouri. For starters, the Chief is a devoted father and husband in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. When he reminds Mildred of his illness, she responds: “They (billboards) won’t be as effective when you croak.” In spite of her callousness, Mildred does have a grudging respect for the Chief.

Mildred’s relationship with Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist and violent Mama’s boy, is fraught with tension. Easily provoked and goaded by his mother, Dixon doesn’t hesitate to take the law into his own hands. Rockwell’s outstanding performance has already earned him two supporting actor awards.

Mildred’s quest for justice takes several startling twists and turns as the narrative progresses. Significant facts are revealed during arguments with her son and ex-husband, leading us to question Mildred’s motives. Fighting back and fighting harder—regardless of how violent or crazed—dominates the second half of the movie.

In short, there are no true heroes or true villains or clear-cut lessons in this dark comic drama that has garnered seven Oscar nominations.


Movie Review: The Post

This thrilling drama, directed by Steven Spielberg, features The Washington Post and its role in exposing the Pentagon Papers, a massive cover-up of government secrets that spanned three decades and four U.S. presidents.

Meryl Streep embraces her role as Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Surrounded by a sea of imposing men, the widowed socialite appears uncertain and uncomfortable as she struggles to assert herself. In the midst of negotiations to take the family newspaper public, she is reluctant to create waves or upset any of her political friends, among them Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood ).

Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the ambitious executive editor determined to raise The Post’s national profile. In the summer of 1971, he gets the opportunity to test his journalistic chops and go head-to-head with the New York Times. After the Nixon administration bans the Times from continuing with the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, Bradlee decides to challenge the White House’s unconstitutional efforts. But first, he must persuade Graham.

Torn between Bradlee, her circle of advisors, and political friends, Graham grapples with this decision but eventually takes a stand. I could feel goosebumps rising as her posture straightened and her voice assumed a stronger timbre. One of my favorite scenes: After the Supreme Court decision, Katherine Graham proudly walks past an admiring group of younger women.

A classic underdog tale enhanced by the Oscar-worthy performances of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.